Beginner Biathlon

It's not just for winter Olympians

On a bright February day in Jackson, my wife Susan and I carried guns in public and skied in circles. The object was to get a serious workout with a mountain view, and then try to hold a target in our rifle sights while breathless.

All this fun can be had by taking the level 1 course at the Jackson Biathlon Range. Biathlon, which most people tend to think about only when the winter Olympic games roll around, combines cross-country (Nordic) skiing with rifle marksmanship. Ski, shoot, ski, shoot.

We learned something new about skiing, gained an insight into an exciting sport, and had fun in the winter sun.

We usually plan a February ski weekend, and we’re familiar with the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation’s network of trails, so when we heard about the Jackson Biathlon Range, I told Susan, “I want to do that.”

Susan had never handled a gun before and wasn’t sure biathlon was something she wanted to try. But, she told me, when she heard that I wanted to do it, she was interested in giving it a go.

We drove from Jackson Village up Black Mountain Road (and then some more up Black Mountain Road) and followed a small sign to our destination, Windy Hill Bed & Breakfast.

The Windy Hill Trail of the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation crosses Windy Hill Field, where the biathlon training range is set up. Fortunately, the day we were there, the weather did not live up to the trail’s name. I imagine wind makes target practice much more challenging.

Once we made it to the range, Jackson Biathlon Range founder and instructor Wayne Peterson greeted us.

There were four students crowded into the small warming hut. After we signed the liability forms, Peterson questioned us to assess our skiing abilities and shooting experience. He recommended skate skis (we had classic skis), and he learned a couple of us had never fired a gun (including Susan).

Wayne took his time with us, going over safety procedures and demonstrating the use of the German Anschütz and Russian Izhmash rifles, which are specially made for biathlon. They’re both bolt-action single-shot rifles, lightweight and adjustable.

Peterson uses the International Biathlon Union safety protocols and range procedures. “My job as range officer is to present the material in a way people can improve their skills,” he says. The .22-caliber rifles take a five-shot magazine, and a sling is attached to carry the rifle backpack style. But as trainees, we would not be skiing with the guns — they stay at the shooting points. Just as well. I’d hate to fall on a $4,000 rifle.

Peterson said biathlon is the most-televised winter sport in Germany, Austria and Russia. He began skiing as an Alpine racer and took up Nordic skiing eight or 10 years ago. Soon after that, he began training in the biathlon at the West Yellowstone Ski Education Foundation in Montana.

While an Olympic biathlon course can have three to five loops, each up to 2.5 kilometers long, the introduction course in Jackson is a single loop that offers distances from .5 kilometer to 1 kilometer.

Opposite the warming hut there are shooting points for four trainees, and the targets are 50 meters away. Peterson instructed us to ski a loop, take our firing point to shoot and then ski a final loop. Here’s where accurate shooting counts — for every target missed, you must ski a penalty loop, meaning come race time, poor accuracy can really hurt you. But for us novices, it’s just practice.

First, we sight in the rifles — that is, we try to hit targets. All Level 1 shooting is in a prone position, lying down with the rifle on a rest. Olympic biathletes shoot offhand (standing up) and prone. With rifle actions open, Peterson sets up paper targets for us.

Susan put all her shots in the black.

Either it was beginner’s luck (she says she was surprised she even hit the target) or Peterson is an excellent teacher. His instructions on how to sight (keeping both eyes open is key) and the breathing steps (take a breath, hold it, fire, then let it out) were all extremely helpful.

I’m a lefty, and had to use a right-handed rifle left-eyed at first. We each had 10 shots. I held my breath, placed the sights directly over the center of the target, and clustered my 10 at 1 and 2 o’clock — three bullets actually made one big hole! My high school rifle teamwork paid off. Fortunately, a left-handed rifle was available for the rest of the day.

Now to actual biathloning.

The trails are groomed to perfection by the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. If we had skate skis, like Peterson recommended, then we could have dug the edges in and skied uphill. Mostly we used our skis like snowshoes, somewhat inelegantly clopping uphill instead.

To shoot with skis on the shooting mat, I had to point them in the right direction, drop to my knees, and then lie prone while aiming with my body. I also had to plan how I was going to get up. This is one reason why new students don’t carry rifles — I could have ended up a tangle of skis, poles and rifle. Not a great idea.

The biathlon targets are black metal disks, five across in a frame. With a hit, a white disk flips up in front of the black targets. With five hits, great, off I go on the loop for the next round. However, with each miss, remember that penalty loop. Fortunately, my marksmanship was adequate enough for a modest result.

Susan was not intimidated by the shooting, but the combination of skiing and shooting was a challenge. “I’m not used to skiing and then suddenly having to be still to fire a weapon,” she says. “When you are breathing hard, it’s hard to be still. It takes a lot of discipline to do this.”

Peterson agrees and says the sport is not easy. The blood does pound in your ears as you aim and try to control your breathing.

We did watch some better skiers/shooters. As skiers, they disappear quickly down the trail and reappear almost flying up the hill. As shooters — ping, ping, ping, ping, ping — all the targets go down.

Sean Doherty of Center Conway, the youngest member of the 2014 US Olympic biathlon team, has trained at Jackson. In 2013, Doherty won a gold and two silver medals in the IBU Junior World Championships, the first US Biathlon athlete to win three medals at any world championship event.

Although there was no race during our course, and we could take our time, an unspoken competition existed among the students as we cycled through shooting and skiing (and penalty loops).

After three hours, the course was over much too fast. Peterson gave us our sighting-in targets.

“I feel like I really accomplished something,” Susan tells me. “I felt good about it. I’m glad I tried it.”

We headed off for a hearty lunch at the J-Town Deli & Country Store. The next day, we returned to Windy Hill, and with new appreciation watched some of the experts.

Categories: Outsider